A few weeks ago, Brian Clark of Copyblogger.com confided in me that he was leaving DIYThemes, and splitting paths from the embattled Thesis theme and lead developer Chris Pearson. He agreed to do an interview with me exclusively about this news. This is the entire transcript of that interview.
Technosailor.com: Brian, thanks for agreeing to this interview. Obviously, the timing of this announcement and interview are interesting considering the discussions that have been happening in the WordPress community as it pertains to licensing and DIYThemes, the creator of the Thesis theme. You’ve been with DIYThemes since its inception and have championed the theme. You’re leaving the company now. Can you describe the reasoning that has gone into this decision?
Brian: Chris Pearson and I have been discussing an amicable way to split for the last 3 months. The very public disagreements Chris recently had with Matt Mullenweg were ugly and embarrassing, but that’s beside the point.
The reason for the split is more fundamental than that one issue. For the last year Chris and I have had completely different opinions about the direction of the development of Thesis, the running of the company, and our relationship with the WordPress community. And there really hasn’t been any way to resolve those different opinions given that I’m the minority owner of the company and what he decides goes.
Technosailor.com: Well, when you say “our relationship with the WordPress community,” that’s got to mean the GPL issue, right?
Brian: That’s part of it, but also, fundamentally I think Chris really wants to build something new that has nothing to do with WordPress. Trying to force his development ideas into a WordPress framework creates a whole set of issues. I wanted him to go build his thing on a separate development track and simply be okay with Thesis being a great framework that extends the power of WordPress — because that’s what it was supposed to be.
As for the GPL, I took steps from the very beginning to make sure we never issued a license that was in contravention of the GPL. We used a membership concept since 2008 after I came on board. Our terms of service said you follow the rules of your Thesis plan and get the benefits of membership — support, updates, etc. If you don’t follow the rules, you get kicked out. It was never a problem, because most people are honest.
My last official act with DIYThemes was drafting the Thesis split GPL license after Matt Mullenweg publicly committed to suing Chris. I thought that was the right move for Thesis going forward, and Chris eventually saw the light. But we were going our separate ways no matter what.
Technosailor.com: There’s a lot more to the story than that regarding the GPL. I know the story because of our conversations over the years, but other people don’t. Can you elaborate?
Brian: Okay. At the very beginning, I was completely in the dark about the GPL. I’m a content guy — I’m busy writing and producing content, not following WordPress politics. But once Chris asked me to partner with him, I naturally had to educate myself. What I found out about the GPL didn’t make much sense, frankly, but it was the way things were with WordPress. So I made sure we never took an intellectual property position in our membership terms that opposed the GPL.
About a year-and-a-half ago, Matt Mullenweg made a big push for the major WordPress premium theme developers to expressly declare themselves GPL. I think Brian Gardner of StudioPress was the first to go along. About that time, I told Chris I saw no problem with going expressly GPL, since we’re selling way more than just code and again, most people in our particular market are honest.
Chris told me to go talk to Matt and Automattic CEO Toni Schneider about going GPL and being welcomed into the WordPress community with open arms. It’s important to remember that due to the Copyblogger audience and my personal relationships, we never needed the blessing of WordPress for marketing purposes. But Matt was offering prominent exposure on WordPress.org, so why not?
Long and short is, I spent a lot of time discussing things with Matt in the early summer of 2009. We had everything worked out. I went back to Chris and he said he had changed his mind and didn’t want to go GPL after all. I thought that was a mistake, and looking back, we started diverging on just about everything from that point forward.
Technosailor.com: Now, you’ve argued with Matt publicly about whether the GPL is even legally enforceable. How do you explain that?
Brian: Oh, don’t get me wrong – as a former attorney, I think the odds of the GPL being shot down in court in this context are pretty good. A lot of practicing attorneys think so too (if you’re interested in that kind of stuff, you can read this and this).
But the law is not the point. If you’re going to develop on a massive open source platform like WordPress, it makes sense to follow the rules of the community that’s developing it. If you don’t want to, go build on something else, or build your own thing. I see the point behind the philosophy of the GPL, and I’m fine with it. I don’t like people trying to assert that it is “the law” and that non-GPL developers are “breaking the law,” because that’s just not accurate.
The GPL is a license (a contract) that has never been judicially tested in the way WordPress says it applies, and that position probably wouldn’t survive a court case. But I got out of law because I hate litigation, so why would I want to fight about it? Just play according to the home court rules and you can still make money with a great offer.
Technosailor.com: So you’re selling your stake in DIYThemes or are you maintaining your interest and stepping away from daily operations and intervention? Is there an advisory role here or is the relationship done?
Brian: At first, around 3 months ago, we explored selling the whole company. Then I floated the idea of me buying Chris out along with some investors. Chris said he wasn’t interested. We finally settled on Chris buying me out over several months of installment payments. The paperwork was drawn up, Chris had a few minor questions, and he told me it was no problem getting it done by the end of July.
Apparently now Chris has changed his mind about that as well. So things are in limbo, but I no longer have any active role with DIYThemes, operational, advisory, or promotional. Like I said, my last official act was preventing him from getting sued by WordPress.
Technosailor.com: What’s the future then for Copyblogger? You have been running Thesis for as long as Thesis has been around. Do you continue doing that or move to a different framework?
Brian: We stopped using Thesis as a development platform for pending projects months ago. It’s perfectly fine for some people, but it doesn’t play well with WordPress enough for our needs. So I’m sure I’ll move Copyblogger to something else soon. And that was part of the reasoning for my departure — I can’t promote something I can’t use.
Technosailor.com: What about Scribe? Is that part of DIYThemes?
Brian: Scribe is a separate company with a different partner and has nothing to do with DIYThemes. It’s exceeding all my expectations after only 6 months and we’ll be releasing version 3.0 this month. So it’s not all doom and gloom. ;-)
Technosailor.com: Now that Thesis has gone Split GPL, do you feel like the damage that has already been done in the community can be fixed? Is it possible for Thesis to have the prominence and success it has had prior to the public “altercations”?
Brian: I don’t know. I just know I no longer have to wake up each morning worried about what “altercation” has broken out overnight. That’s a good feeling in itself. Life is too short to be involved in things that make you unhappy.
Photo Credit: Wendy Piersall